$$$$ ($15-$24)
Mirchi photo
Stacy Zarin

Editorial Review

NOTE: The restaurant serves a daily lunch buffet.

Some Like It Hot

By Candy Sagon
The Washington Post Magazine
Sunday, May 20, 2007

** (out of four)

His forehead was damp, and sweat beaded his upper lip. His cheeks looked flushed, as if he had been running. He took a big swallow of ice water, followed by a gulp of wine, and then another swallow of water.

"Man, this is hot," my dining companion said, mopping his lip with a napkin and then reaching for the bowl of fiery red chicken chunks. "I think I'll have some more."

That's the thing about Mirchi, a small Indian restaurant opened by four friends in Ashburn. The spicy dishes may make you sniffle and sweat and pant like a dog, but you just keep eating, because the flavors are addictive. This is not the searing, one-note heat of biting into a chili pepper. This is heat from layer upon layer of spice that slowly builds on your tongue, beguiling you, until only belatedly do you realize that there's steam coming out of your ears.

Mirchi (Hindi for chili pepper) is one of several new ethnic eateries in booming Loudoun County, where the number of Indian immigrants more than tripled between 2000 and 2005, according to the latest Census Bureau figures. The restaurant was opened 18 months ago near the Ashburn Ice House by "four IT guys," as co-owner Vikram Kallepu describes himself and his partners. The four kept their high-tech day jobs but take turns overseeing the 50-seat restaurant at night. Located in a strip shopping center, the bland boxy space is dressed up with walls painted red, green and orange (the colors of peppers, says Kallepu), and framed abstract prints.

The co-owners all are originally from Hyderabad, a city in southern India known for its distinctive, spicy cooking. The aromatic food reflects its rich, multicultural history, blending elements of Hindu and Muslim cooking, including the Persian-influenced Mughal cuisine of the north. Plus, as Kallepu explains, "Our weather is hot, so we eat spicier food" in order to sweat and cool off. The cooking at Mirchi is done by three chefs, one in charge of the tandoori dishes (including kebabs, tikka and naans); one, trained at Bombay Palace in Washington, who specializes in north Indian curries; and the third, who cooks the restaurant's signature Hyderabadi food. Vegetarian dishes play a large role on the menu, but there's also a place for lamb, chicken, fish and, occasionally, goat.

I first heard about Mirchi from an Indian friend who wanted to try the restaurant's Indian-Chinese dishes. It's a hybrid that's popular in her homeland -- she called it "our comfort food" -- but hard to find in the Washington area. The dishes originated hundreds of years ago with Chinese workers who settled in India. Their stir-fry style of cooking meshed with Indian spices and ingredients to produce dishes such as the spicy chili chicken that had made my friend Alex sweat so happily. The red chunks of battered and fried white meat get their color from a little ketchup in the sauce and their heat from chili-spiked vinegar, soy sauce, green and red onions, and green chilies. The balance of tart plus the heat makes the dish irresistible. Chicken Manchuria -- cubes stir-fried with lots of garlic, onions, ginger and chilies in a tangy brown Manchurian sauce -- is another typical Indo-Chinese dish. You can order it dry (just stir-fried), or wet (swimming in sauce). It's a personal preference, but I liked it better dry.

One of the stars of Mirchi's menu is biryani, the slow-cooked, layered rice dish found throughout the Middle East and South Asia. Mirchi's version, not surprisingly, ratchets up both the spices and the heat. Biryani is traditionally served at festive occasions, and when the waiter brings the big white bowls heaped with saffron rice studded with meat, vegetables and a hard-boiled egg, redolent of cardamom and cumin, you feel like celebrating. We tried the lamb version (hot) and the chicken version (HOT). The lamb pieces were a little dry, but the dark meat chicken -- marinated, cooked on the bone and hacked into chunks -- was tender and moist. The golden rice packed heat and sweet, thanks to cinnamon bark, cardamom seeds, ginger, garlic and the ubiquitous chilies. Baby goat biryani is occasionally available (you have to ask), but it sells out quickly.

Mirchi offers almost a dozen lamb dishes from various regions of India. Lamb rogan gosht, a tender stew from the milder north, was rich in flavor from caramelized onions and long, slow cooking in spices and herbs. "Lamb fry" -- a deceptively bland name -- gets a "spicy" notation on the menu, and for good reason. The dark, tender pieces have been rubbed with cumin, coriander and other seasoning, then cooked in a wok with curry leaves and a fiery sauce that is slowly absorbed by the meat. The result is searingly wonderful when eaten with pieces of soft naan and swigs from a cold Kingfisher beer (or yogurt lassi) to cut the fire.

But it's not all about the carnivores or the chili-heads. On another visit, the vegetarians in the group got to choose, and they went with the milder dishes. They began with two perfectly done southern Indian specialties -- the spring dosa, a golden brown, rice-and- lentil crepe folded around crunchy, chopped fresh vegetables generously sprinkled with cilantro and ginger; and uthappam, a thicker, toothier lentil-rice pancake (some call it Indian pizza), which we ordered topped with onions and peas. Vegetable hakka noodles, stir-fried and doused with white pepper, brought back childhood memories for one friend who had lived in India as a girl. For the rest of us, the noodles seemed mushy, and the white pepper overwhelmed any other flavors. More satisfying were the bagara baingan, a traditional Hyderabadi dish of stuffed baby eggplant in a creamy, nutty sauce of tamarind, sesame seeds, peanuts and coconut; and the navarathan korma -- chopped vegetables, dried fruit and cubes of cheese in a mild, white, cream-based sauce.

Because my vegetarian companions eat fish, we ordered fish malabari -- and promptly fought over who would get the last creamy shreds. That was partly because there weren't that many pieces of tilapia, but it was mostly because the cara-mel-colored curry sauce -- enriched with coco-nut milk, tomatoes and onions -- was so good.

For dessert, the house special is qubani ka meeta, a thick compote of dried apricots, cinnamon, cloves and other spices. Served with vanilla ice cream, it banished any last burning tingle of the palate.

The only spoiler to my meals was the service. The staff seems inexperienced and inattentive (after asking three times for more water, one of my companions finally walked over and got the pitcher himself), and the language barrier can be a problem. Kallepu and his partners say they want to bring regional Indian food into the American mainstream. First, though, they need to smooth out a few of their young business's rough edges.